Vieux Lyon: Narrow streets, old world charm and traboules, oh my.

Street in Vieux Lyon
Street in Vieux Lyon

Before I get too far into this post on the Vieux Lyon, I should mention that I, as a general rule, love neighbourhoods that contain:

  • Reasonably narrow cobblestone streets.
  • Low-rise buildings (at most, say, six storeys, but typically at least two or three storeys) that line those streets and sharply nudge the sidewalks. (Note: I refer to this as low-rise because I live in Toronto, a city with many skyscrapers. In more height-challenged cities six stories might be referred to as mid-rise, or even high-rise in exceptionally height-challenged cities.)
  • Old-world architecture.
  • Minimal or no vehicular traffic, whether due to edict, custom or because the streets are too narrow to accommodate them.
  • Small, inviting public squares dotted here and there.
  • Trees, probably located in the squares because of the buildings nudging the sidewalks, are truly lovely, environmentally friendly and greatly appreciated, but nevertheless secondary to all of the above when it comes to my personal tastes in neighbourhoods to visit.

Vieux Lyon has all those things so I loved it. If you hate that sort of place then you’ll hate the Vieux Lyon quarter of Lyon.

Building in Vieux Lyon
Building in Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon is the official name of a district in Lyon and, as French for “old Lyon,” a reasonably accurate description of the neighbourhood. The buildings in that quarter sit, as they say, cheek by jowl. (They being people who lack the creativity and vocabulary to avoid using clichés.) They (the buildings, not the cliché-addicted) contain residences, stores, restaurants and services. In other words, Vieux Lyon is a lively, down-to-earth neighbourhood.

Many of the exteriors of the buildings in Vieux Lyon are painted in various calming pastel colours. I can’t tell you about the interiors because, well, I was just a tourist who didn’t know a soul in any part of Lyon. Randomly barging in on strangers is not my thing. Getting arrested for trespassing is also not my thing.

I took an organized walking tour of Vieux Lyon, which was included with the Lyon City Card I bought. The tour guide explained how the quarter came to take its current form and be so densely populated, without the buildings rising particularly high. The guide’s spiel is the source of the information in the next few paragraphs. I can’t vouch for that information, but I have no reason to doubt it. The tour guide seemed to me to be a nice lady without any intention to deceive. Then again I can be an exceptionally gullible person at times, so, who knows? You could always Google it if you like because, as everyone knows, the Internet is the source of everything good and true.

With that caveat out of the way, here’s the scoop:

Starting in the Renaissance period and continuing beyond that, when the population of Lyon grew, the city’s developers, with the city’s blessing, started constructing buildings as high as six stories tall to accommodate a large number of people in a small area. Six stories pretty much constituted a high-rise in a time before elevators.

To further increase density, they eliminated gaps between buildings. Also, where there used to be buildings with large backyards, they constructed buildings in what used to be yards.

Traboules of Vieux Lyon

Further increasing density, the city made the blocks on streets that ran parallel to the Sâone River quite long. Thus, they wouldn’t waste valuable building space to accommodate a large number of cross-streets.

But long blocks would, without a creative solution, have created a problem. They meant that someone who started out mid-block and merely wanted to walk to the next long parallel street over would have had to walk a long way to get to the cross street that would take them there. The long-ago planners of Vieux Lyon found a way to solve the problem: traboules.

Courtyard off a traboule
Courtyard off a traboule

At least, that’s what they are called in Lyon. As best I can tell from my limited research, traboule is not a French word, but rather a Lyon word.

Traboules are narrow passageways that run inside buildings. You can walk through them to get from one street to the next parallel street. To give residents some outdoor space to enjoy, there are also small courtyards off the traboules in a portion of what used to be backyards before buildings were constructed in them.

At one time, all of the traboules of Vieux Lyon were open to the public. Now, most of them are private because us tourists were too much of a disturbance to the owners and renters of the private residences the traboules through.

Lyon kept the traboules through social housing buildings open to the public so tourists can experience them. That having been said, you probably need a tour guide or a good tour book to find the unrestricted traboules. They are behind closed doors that look like normal building doors. It’s possible that I was just too unobservant because I was too busy making sure I didn’t lose sight of the tour guide, but I didn’t see any signs marking those doors as traboule entrances.

If you do find and explore the public traboules, the city asks that you please be respectful and quiet. It’s not Disneyland. Real people living real lives live behind the doors you pass as you walk through the traboules.


Been there? Done that? Do tell.